My nineteenth century immigrant ancestors have caused me a lot of headaches. With the exception of my Muir ancestor, Robert, who listed his specific birthplace, my immigrant ancestors were very vague in listing their birthplaces on records in the U.S.
Though most of my ancestry is Irish, I have a German line that has always interested me. My great-great-grandfather, John Henry Hampe, came to the New York in 1872, and eventually moved to Boston. Though he claimed to have been naturalized in later census records, I was never able to locate a naturalization record for him, which I hoped would list his birthplace.
Curious to know where the Hampes came from, I wondered if there was a way to locate the general area the surname comes from in Germany. I found a German genealogy site, Verwandt.de. Unfortunately, when I searched the Hampe surname, it seemed to be present in many parts of Germany, which didn’t help to narrow down my search.
I later found out that ten years after John Henry Hampe came to the United States, his parents John Andrew and Maria Teresia Hampe, as well as his siblings, also came to America. In tracking them forward, I came across the death certificate of Maria T. Hampe, dated 26 December 1919. Fortunately, my great-great-grandfather was the informant, and listed her parents, Henry Hoge and Maria Heskamp. With this additional information, I was able to use the German surname map to narrow down the likely origin of my family in Germany.
Based on the German surname distribution maps, my family appeared to come from a region in Western Germany. I was eventually able to track down a naturalization record for one of John Henry Hampe’s brothers, Conrad; Conrad states that he was born in Lingen, Germany, a town in Emsland, Lower Saxony, and a region where all three surnames appear on the distribution maps (the region is highlighted in red on the Heskamp map at left).
Several countries have similar surname distribution maps. For Irish research, The Irish Times has compiled a surname search for Irish surnames found in mid-nineteenth century Ireland. Though helpful when searching for my Kenefick ancestors, who seem to originate in County Cork, the Hughes surname is widespread throughout Ireland, and such maps don’t necessarily help me wade through the many Patrick and Mary Hugheses living in Ireland in the 1800s.
Though challenging if the name is common, surname distribution maps can be a helpful way to begin research in your immigrant ancestor’s home country. They can be particularly beneficial, as in the case of my Hampe ancestors, if you know additional surnames, such as their parents’ surnames or the maiden names of their wives.